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Remembering Mad Pride, The Movement That Celebrated Mental Illness

"When mainstream society rejected people who are mentally ill, it created a kind of alternative society."

Original Mad Pride logo

A quarter of people in the UK say they have suffered from a mental health problem, yet most of them are isolated from one another. Unlike other groups and demographics, there is little in the way of a mental health movement.

But imagine if there was. A huge festival in a park – a parade, concerts, poetry readings: hundreds of clinically depressed, anxious and schizophrenic people out on the streets or squashed into bars, to protest, but also just to be with one another and take pride in who they are.


Between 1999 and 2012, that existed. It was called "Mad Pride", a movement that tells us a lot about how mental health campaigning came to be what it is today.

Mad Pride was founded by four men with first hand experience of using mental health services; Mark Roberts, Simon Barnett, Robert Dellar, and Pete Shaughnessy. Simon had gone to a gay pride event and thought that there should be something similar for people with mental health issues. He had been involved in an organisation called Survivors Speak Out – a blueprint for what today is called the "user movement", where mental health patients come together to network and defend their rights – but all four men believed that there needed to be a group for mental health patients that resembled something more of a liberation army.

"It seemed like the right time to fight back," explains Robert Dellar over the phone. Robert worked for the charity Mind when he got involved with Mad Pride in 1999, but had also suffered from mental health problems himself, treated on and off for depression and anxiety.

"Back then there was a hell of a lot of stigma against people with mental health issues in the media," he says. "People with schizophrenia, for example, were portrayed as violent and stabbing people all the time. Yes, there were a couple of high profile cases that made the cover of newspapers, but what annoyed us was that if you looked at the statistics, homicides committed by people with mental health issues weren't really any higher than those committed by other people. It seemed unfair."


The other problem at the time, says Rob, was the way that drug companies were interacting with the mental health sector. "The government was encouraged by the media and one or two maverick charities to put forward legislation that increased coercion of people with mental health issues," he says. "There was legislation that compelled them to accept treatment they might not have wanted – like medication – which of course has its advantages but may also have had life-shortening side effects."

Fed up with this legislative attitude to mental health, Mad Pride started recruiting members. "We were quite attention seeking," remembers Rob. "People thought it was lively and wanted to get involved." The type of people they attracted was broad, he says – a lot of punks, anarchists, lefties, and people with all sorts of different clinical diagnoses, as well as professionals who worked in the sector. But their common experience lay in having the same frustrations about how mental health services were run. "Mad Pride never had a strict definition," Rob muses, "it was very free floating."

Today a name like "Mad Pride" would stand out as problematic; "mad" seems like an outdated and derogatory term. I ask if it was at the time, if they were trying to reclaim it. "We were up to a point," he answers, "but it was about more than reclaiming, it was undermining the prejudicial use."

"It was always intended to provoke and I think it still does," adds Mark Roberts. "Some mental health survivors hate it – but we obviously liked it a lot." Mark compares the use of "Mad" in the context to the way black people use the word "n–––" – "it shocks outsiders," he says. "Personally I capitalise Mad to denote it as a political term, just as some Disabled People do likewise."


The group held events on and off for a couple of years, the frequency largely contingent on the organisers' own states of mental health: Rob was struggling with alcoholism and Pete was becoming increasingly "psychotic". Rob says it was fun and creative to work in different ways on a shoe string budget, outside the normal conventions of a protest movement, but that at times running an organisation made up of mental health patients was understandably difficult. Then, on December 15th, 2002, co-founder Pete Shaughnessy committed suicide.

"He'd been very depressed leading up to that, but it knocked us full for six," remembers Rob. "Mad Pride trundled on for a while but Pete's death really took the sting out of it for us. Pete was the media spokesperson, very charismatic, he had the energy and the ideas that kept it going."

Since Pete's death, Mad Pride has put on the odd protest or gig. There was a demo in 2011 against Cameron and Osborne's austerity cuts, which they held in Hyde Park. But that was the last event. "People involved have moved on, or stopped campaigning altogether," says Mark.

Such was Mad Pride's appeal that several spin off organisations started popping up around the world after it was formed; Turin Mad Pride, Toronto Mad Pride, a branch in India, another in New Zealand. Rob says they're not coordinated or related, they just picked up on the name. "It's not something we had no control of, it just built up its own momentum."


Mad Pride Brazil (via wikicommons)

Both Mark and Rob agree that Mad Pride was a product of its time; an organisation they can't see existing today. Pharmaceutical companies have been so successful in marketing anti-depressants, anti-psychotics and anti-anxiety drugs, that these days a huge number of people are on them – one in eleven people with mental health problems.

As more people are classed as mentally ill, arguably the stigma fades. And yet, Rob says, the downside of this is that it's contributed to a climate where it seems like mental health issues are sometimes no big deal. "OK, so one in four people might have experienced mental illness of some kind. We need to remember that one in four hundred are suffering really badly and their lives are at risk… but they're getting abandoned," he says.

"In the 90s, when I worked in mental health, so much work was put into trying to get people out of hospital who don't want to be there and now people can't get beds in hospitals in the first place. There's no safety net there for people who are experiencing really severe mental distress and are at terrible risk. I think the biggest change we've seen since Mad Pride is those issues becoming more of a priority than the civil liberties angle, than the stigma side of things."

Perhaps that's why Rob, Mark and other members of Mad Pride are now involved with a pressure group that arose out of the 2011 austerity cuts demo in Hyde park, known as the Mental Health Resistance Network. Rob says it's a very different set up to Mad Pride: "We're more assertively political, from a far left perspective. We do serious things like take the government to court over welfare benefits cuts."


Burning an effigy of the Chancellor in 2010, photo courtesy of Mad Pride

Still, he says, a lot of it wouldn't have happened without Mad Pride catalysing the UK user movement: "I think people feel a lot more confident about campaigning and putting heads about the parapet now, because we did it so prominently back then."

That's been Mad Pride's most vital legacy, he says. "It created a community, a lot of friendships, a kind of alternative society. When mainstream society rejected people who are mentally ill, that was important."


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